On self-knowledge

Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2011

ON MY LEFT index finger is a ring that fits snugly. It's been there for a decade. I began to wear it several years after my father died. Then, a few days ago, I was washing my oily hands in hot water – I'd been cooking a fish dish – and the ring slipped off. This had never happened before. I'm staying in lodgings in London – though they go by some flashier name – and the basin I was using lacked a plug, the metal sort you manipulate up and down via a lever behind the central hot and cold tap. The ring shot straight down the plughole.

It is a gold band joined in a buckle, known as a keeper ring. I didn't think this would happen either: I am the third member of my family to wear it: first my grandfather, then my father, now me. Or should I say, then me. The last. The ring had gone. I looked down the plughole and saw only darkness, imagined the heirloom plummeting down the narrow pipe – I'm on the third floor – into some tributary, water rushing through it towards a main artery in the vast subterranean network of London's sewers. The only hope of its rescue –but not by me – being that it might stall in one of the old Victorian pipes undergoing seemingly endless replacement, and be prized by its sweating finder, though most likely he'd have thicker fingers than mine. Otherwise, it was as good as vaporised.

What struck me was that I accepted the loss. I'd inherited the ring, worn it for a while, now it was gone. History. What happens. At most, I felt a bit forlorn. This is not what I would have imagined feeling had the incident been hypothetical. I'd surely have conceived then that my mind would start racing, as fast as the ring, towards upset, distress. A flood of feeling. Who was this person, six decades alive, endeavouring to be commonly wise, a representative believer in self-examination, for myself and for the sake of others – indeed, a believer in knowing myself, lizard brain included, its existence the reason why we are so riveted by wild fellow creatures, birds or reptiles, whether threatened by or attracted to them – who was this cool, civilised stranger staring dumbly down a dark plughole where something significant had dropped?

I assume my father began to wear the ring, also on his left index finger, in 1953, the year his father died. I think he admired him. The men in my family have the hands of clerks, not labourers, slender index fingers to relay the gold band. But I always thought, with its buckle, it looked masculine, not an adornment – exhibiting strength, not foppery. What it first represented for my grandfather – assuming he was the first wearer – I don't know. He was a major in the British army on the administrative side, an accountant: not the only buckle he would wear. The one on his finger was part of a man's solid ring, of its time. Over the years countless molecules of gold have been rubbed off, and even when I was a boy the delineations of the buckle were smoothed. Soft gold. I wanted to hold it. On my father's finger it represented continuity, even authority, when there was family turbulence.

Now I had lost it, not far from where I spent my childhood. When very young I could not have conceived that I'd never want to wear it; that after my father died, in 1996, I'd reject its weight on my finger, having tried the ring on, as a thing I'd have to shake off. The weight of decades, for the widower and his son, of mutual impatience and blame, erosion of respect, words not said, kindnesses not built upon – mutually tough dependence, like the tongue of a belt in its buckle. Or, perhaps, mutual need of each other, blood-tied in a psychological grapple, no time limit, age eventually on my side. How could such a survivor suddenly wear the very thing that would signal a victory?

Eventually, I did wear it. It happened this way, unexpectedly. Do we best discover knowledge of ourselves when caught unawares? I'd returned the keeper ring to the small blue pull-top bag supplied by the funeral director, stored it in a drawer, and mostly forgot about it. Later, because I was going away for a long time, the ring and countless other items were stored in the roof of my house, prior to it being leased. When I returned, five or six years after the funeral, down came the stuff again – and I spotted the little cloth bag. I opened it, inspected the ring, tried it on, idly, index finger, left hand. It felt right. I left it there. Why? What had happened? I slowly realised that I'd changed but hadn't kept up with the pace. The change was subterranean, faster flowing than I could have conceived. Proof the self can be ever transforming – shadows capable of changing to shine. It struck me: I had become reconciled to my father without really knowing it. Now it was my index finger that burnished the inside of the ring.

Those years when the ring had been stored in the cloth bag, a forgotten thing, I'd been leading a partly secret life: conversing with myself about my father, indeed, sometimes internally talking to him. Long ago I'd realised that I was never going to treat my own children in the way my father had treated me. Cut out the fear, nurture the seeds of encouragement. Let affection bloom. Now I'd begun to see him, from a distance in time, in his own right, free of what I'd encouraged in him – so different to what my daughters have encouraged in me, and who loved him, that isolated, stoical man who never complained about his lot. Who could drown overcooked meat and two veg in a lake of gravy and be convinced that no finer meal could be ordered in any restaurant; who on a par three sank two holes-in-one in a single week but spent much of his time in the rough; who considered the hand-sized huntsman spiders he shared his house with to be his 'friends'; who smoked a pipe; who lived, after I left home, ever alone; who, being a fit, determined, punctual man, never took a day off work during his forty-four years as an actuary, except for my mother's funeral, in 1962; who had been a prodigy in mathematics; who, a lone campaigner for correctness, made lists of words whose pronunciation Australians, in his view, mangled; who wrote published letters to Melbourne's Age; whose eyebrows were long and wild; who once drew a wounded bull on a Cabcharge receipt and said to my daughters, That's how they charge; who was a whiz at cryptic crosswords; who loved whisky; who lived, and wore, on his left index finger, a gold keeper ring.

It was gone. I thought the upset must surely come later. The loss. I looked down the plughole again, then realised that in my pocket was a keyring torch. I was glad nobody chanced to spot me so carefully examining the facilities which, if the owners are honest with themselves, require some capital outlay. To my astonishment, I spotted the glinting rim of the ring – saved from a freefall by an obstruction, a nail or something. I was no longer fatalistic or forlorn but, seized by the need for rapid action, ran to get that most protean artefact, a coathanger, unwound the neck, stretched the length of the wire straight, made a crude hook at one end and, nervously, lowered it. I'd been fooling myself when I accepted the loss: shocked. Now I was attempting surgical precision, a make-or-break raising manoeuvre, wire in one hand, tiny torch in the other. The ring shifted promisingly, then slipped past the obstruction. But not, amazingly, out of sight. It hadn't occurred to me that the downpipe would be U-shaped – what ignorance we can live with! Now, should any witness have been about, I was a novice plumber, crouching, engaged in frantic dismantling, heavy breathing. The ring! Soon I had it in my hand, and a lot of water on the tiled floor – had what the ring represents, and a reassertion of the importance of it. In the future I hope one of my grandsons will choose to wear the gold keeper and, hey, even flash it.

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